A garden is much more than a space filled with flowers, trees and plants. It is a world of vital color; a place marked by intoxicating smells – lilac, fresh grass, fallen leaves – and the rustle of wind through braches; a space that engages all senses. It is this philosophy that Cari Varner, program manager of the Finger Lakes Institute’s Community Design Center (CDC) and Sustainable Community Development Program, and her student interns with the CDC hope to bring to their latest project – an outdoor recreation area.
The CDC is embarking on a project in conjunction with Ontario ARC. At the ARC’s Canandaigua Everheart Center, Varner and the student interns are working to redesign the outdoor recreation area for the center’s seventy adults, improving upon the space’s existing paths and structures.
“We’re excited to revitalize the space, to make better use of it,” says Varner. “When we met and talked with the staff, they were so enthusiastic. It made me think, we can really enrich this place. They do such amazing work there, we want to make sure that we meet their needs in a respectful and cognitive way.”
The project will provide individuals with the opportunity for recreation, and serve as a way to incorporate green infrastructure and environmental education into the work of the center. The CDC worked with the Consulting Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo to gather information about ADA requirements as well as learn about various strategies and features commonly used in such spaces and in line with universal design.
“The work we’re doing speaks to the goals of sustainable design with an emphasis on social equity,” says Varner.
Student intern Maggie Markham ’14 echoes Varner’s sentiments. “Everyone should be able to use a space to its fullest potential,” she says.
The space will be sustainable, nurturing more than 40 native plants, and will serve as a place for passive and active recreation. Visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy the solitude of nature or participate in outdoor activities such as yoga, picnics or bocce.
Since the beginning of the semester, the group has been researching ADA guidelines, and has worked with ARC staff and maintenance crew members to access the needs and wishes for the community center’s gardens.
Among the plans is a sensory garden, which actively stimulates the various senses. Vibrant flowers create visual contrast and strong scents, while a leafy tree can create an auditory experience. The group also plans to install a touch wall, which stimulates the sense of touch through a combination of wavy, smooth, and rough textures created by rocks and recycled, soft glass.
Also incorporated into the design is a zen garden, which will provide many psychological benefits, as well as a rain garden to aid in the collection of water in areas that are susceptible to flooding. Raised flower beds will allow individuals in wheelchairs to take part in hands-on gardening, growing fragrant plants such as basil and lemon balm. Signs denoting plant species will not only be educational, but will also include information in Braille.
While each of the interns have had previous experience designing for spaces in the Geneva community for their “Sustainable Community Development Methods & Tools” class, taught by Varner in Spring 2013, this project is uncharted – but welcomed – territory.
“This project has made me see planning in a completely different way,” says Markham, who now finds herself walking across campus, identifying plants as she goes. “Now, when I look at the plans, I see a ‘room of nature’ rather than just an outdoor space.”
In addition to introducing new design theories and challenges, the project has also served to better prepare the students for work beyond their undergraduate courses.
“I’ve learned a lot about computer rendering, which is really important for pursing a career in architecture,” explains Audrey Li ’15. “Exploring all of the technology and putting our information into illustrator has actually been really fun.”
The program, Varner explains, is meant to develop applied skills in students, giving them experience in completing work that has real life ramifications.
“In a more traditional class, you want to achieve a good grade, and that is certainly an important responsibility, but with this project, students are not working for grades, they are working for people. This is a responsibility that resonates in a completely different way than a paper or an essay.”
“We really apply these ideas – we don’t just talk about them,” says Markham. “It allows us to be that much more passionate.”
Joelle Mauch ’15 agrees. “In the architecture studio, we learn a lot of principles and get to sort of dream up whatever we want – we design a lot of things that don’t actually get created,” she says. “But this garden, this is something that we will actually see happen.”
Varner and the student interns will present their ideas to the Ontario ARC board this December, and construction on the new space will start in Spring 2014.
The Ontario ARC is a private, not-for-profit that serves more than 900 children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families throughout Ontario County.
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In the photo above Cari Varner, program manager of the Finger Lakes Institute’s Community Design Center (CDC) and Sustainable Community Development Program, is flanked byMaggie Markham ’15 and Joelle Mauch ’15.